The People's Key
Author: Josh Rotter
2/11/11 | Crawdaddy.com | www.crawdaddy.com | Record Review
A friend recently posted on her Facebook page that "Music is the only thing in this world you can count on, because no matter how you feel, there is a song that can match your feelings to the letter." I would go one step further and say that there are certain go-to albums that I rely on, depending on my mood. This last week was a painful one, after spraining my back. Lying around, feeling sore and sorry for myself, I was only able to find relief in a combo of Bright Eyes' latest release and seventh studio album, The People's Key, and Carisoprodol.I could have just as easily called the muscle relaxant Soma, as it's more popularly known, but I use the long version in the spirit of Bright Eyes frontman Conor Oberst, who writes in big words like "oscilloscopes," "jejune," and "cenote" and arcane biblical references that I grasp only when aided by Google searches.Before the Soma's tranquilizing effects take hold and I get as tangential as a Bing commercial spokesperson, I'll say that when I focused less on the verbiage and slid carelessly into the mesmerizing storytelling and mellifluous tonality he created on this must-have album, I found myself set adrift on sensory bliss.Recorded at the band's own ARC Studios in Omaha, Nebraska, this follow-up to 2007's much lauded Cassadaga finds an older Oberst showcasing strengthened vocals and an expanded, more modern, keyboard-heavy musical aesthetic?a departure from the band's rootsy Americana past?as he explores man's inhumanity and what hopes we have for redemption. But unlike many of today's artists, he's not just talking about the wars of the world, but also the internal battles we continue to face to become better people.It's fitting that the album comes out on February 15th, Oberst's 31st birthday, because it's on birthdays that we tend to reexamine our past in hopes of understanding our present.Opening the album with a sermon on our past, Denny Brewer, the guitarist for psychedelic blues band Refried Ice Cream, falls back on ancient Samarian texts and the Bible to pinpoint when civilization first went wrong. It was when we were overtaken by a reptilian race from another dimension?religious fanatics might call them demons. But you, yes you, can still combat these dark forces, Brewer explains, because "you're controlling the cycle.""The problems of the future can be solved by mankind because you create them? and you have to believe in the future and what we have to do to progress." But "Love's always been the message, it's just circumstances happen, right? People freak out, just flat flip out."Brewer points out that it happened to Hitler once the negative force trumped the positive one, and if you take the rest of the album literally, it's also happened to Oberst. What's more, the singer-songwriter is finally ready to reverse his misfortune.On tracks like "Firewall" and "Shell Games" Oberst sings of the difficulty of transformation, of busting through the firewall into heaven, especially when he can't move that heavy love alone. In "Jejune Stars", he mourns the Edenic experience of innocently kissing under the bleachers, because today "Any expression of love? the voice in the back of my head, says that I don't deserve.""Approximate Sunlight"?which includes my favorite line on the album, "I used to dream of time machines. Now it's been said we're post-everything"?blasts the many falsehoods imparted to us by sci-fi stories, showmen, and LA shamans that only "drenched us in approximated sunlight," instead of bringing true enlightenment, while the world remained darkened by misery. In "Ladder Song", one can't help but "kiss the feet of a charlatan." Still, in "Haile Selassie", named for the former Ethiopian emperor, Oberst looks for guidance from the man revered by some Rastafarians as the Messiah, until he realizes that salvation isn't found in outside forces. "That's the problem, an empty sky / I fill it up with everything that's missing from my life," he sings. "How sad it is to know I'm in control," or as he chants in the rousing closer, "You and me, you and me that is an awful lie / It's I and I."The album's attitude that we must bear responsibility for the quagmires we're in is easily heard but hard to swallow. It's so tempting to blame politicians, corporations, families, and partners for everything that's wrong with our lives. Rather than improving ourselves and our communities, we play the blame game and continue to hurt others. But Oberst's willingness to stand up and take personal accountability demonstrates a more developed maturity.Until you're ready to get off the couch and apply what you've learned over the course of the 47-minute album out in the world (I know I'm not, at least not until the back pain and Soma wear off) Oberst's fevered dream world of purple-lit jungles, flying spaceships, stars that look like blood oranges, and swims in "that cenote the Heavens made with black fire" is a nice place to visit.